Both parties benefit

The flexibility of contract work is beneficial to both the firm and the individual, says Richard Tyler. Firms are able to keep their fixed overheads under control while the solicitor has the freedom to pursue other business interests.

Permanent employment does not suit everyone. Indeed, as a lifestyle choice, working for three days out of five or three months out of four is becoming a favourable option. The first step is to become a contract solicitor – or a locum in the old terminology.

A firm employs contract solicitors for a fixed period of time – normally about two months to two years is usual – for a salary comparable to that of a permanent position of a solicitor qualified for the same number of years.

The pitfall is that working on a freelance basis means sacrificing the perks that permanent employment offers like healthcare, employer pension contributions and sometimes holiday pay and sickness cover. And there is, of course, the risk that the right contract is not there when you need it.

Leading recruitment agencies report, however, that the market for contract work is booming. Michael Page is the latest agency to expand its contract arm and others like Badenoch & Clark, Elliott Slone and ZMB have already gone down this route.

The reason these agencies are committing resources to contract recruitment is because they see the potential for further growth. The UK's flexible labour market hit the headlines last year, proffered by politicians and analysts as one of the reasons for this country's current economic strength.

But the legal profession is lagging behind the rest of the economy in its use of temporary contracts. However, agencies predict this will change rapidly. Carmel Murphy, ZMB's contract manager, says her tip for the future is an explosion in the use of contract paralegals employed on an hourly basis.

Murphy says the advantage of such short-term employment has already been recognised by firms in the US. These firms bring in teams of paralegals to work on large transactions or litigation work. She says that this frees up expensive trainees, allowing them to benefit from exposure to higher level work.

Flora Coutts, recently recruited from another agency to expand Michael Page's contracts division, argues that both employers and employees in the UK are already reassessing their needs and expectations.

Many vacancies arise from maternity leave or holiday cover, but firms are also recruiting contract solicitors to help on special projects. Common practice areas in the past have been litigation and commercial property projects, but many firms are now using contractors in the areas of corporate, tax, banking and IT.

“They want someone who is good and who can come on board to give experience in a particular area,” says Coutts.

Most firms now use contract solicitors at some point. Keith Wood, SJ Berwin & Co's managing executive, is enthusiastic about the benefits afforded to his firm. He describes the relationship between the contractor and the firm as “mutually positive exploitation” and he says that he gets “100 per cent net recovery as every hour they work is recovered”.

In this respect, firms can turn to contract solicitors in order to keep fixed overheads under control, says Wood.

“Contract solicitors are cost-effective as they don't get side-tracked by non-chargeable issues such as Continuing Professional Development points or by administration or management issues.”

SJ Berwin has a number of contract solicitors working in different departments which are brought in when there is a sudden burst of client activity. For instance, property clients were particularly active in February and March of this year.

Solicitors take up the temporary contract option for various reasons. Sometimes it may be down to redundancy or an inability to join the permanent employment market. But often the choice is made as a conscious decision to switch from the daily strains of practice.

It is all about lifestyle. Some solicitors may decide that they need a break. Travelling or devoting time to a promising hobby could be the priority, perhaps returning in six to 12 months to consider the next step.

Contract work can be the ideal way to get back into the swing of things or to generate enough income to support a change in priorities. For many, life is not all about law.

The agencies report that they have lawyers on their books immersed in such varied distractions as writing books to setting up in business. These solicitors can join a firm for a fixed period of time and can then resume their other interests.

And the risk of contract work is less than many might believe. The agencies argue that the market for good contract solicitors is recession-proof.

When the next economic downturn occurs the in-house, private practice and local government sectors will look at their budgets and head counts. They will choose to employ contract solicitors for a particular project, so the agencies say, rather than gambling that the work will continue and a permanent position can be justified.

The future for contract work looks bright due to the flexibility it offers both the individual and the employer. And the once widely held view that contract solicitors are “second raters” is changing. Wood reflects: “They are not looked upon as new age travellers – often they are envied.”

A contract solicitor's experience in the field

Richard Buxton qualified as a solicitor in 1977. He is now 44 and is working on a one-year contract with Trowers & Hamlins in its property department. He sees contract work as a means to an end and that is permanent employment.

Buxton trained and worked the early part of his career at Holborn firm Woodham Smith, which at the time did mainly property work but has now ceased to exist. From 1987 to 1991 he was at Field Fisher Waterhouse, where he became a partner. He then lost his position after the property crash.

After working with north London-based four-partner practice DHP Levy & Co for two years he moved to Singapore to be with his family and worked both in-house and with a local litigation practice. Last June, he returned to the UK with the intention of getting back into property practice. Having spent four years out of the market he looked at contract work as a way of getting back into the mainstream while allowing him the flexibility to travel abroad to visit his children.

Putting his CV through ZMB he quickly got a six-month contract from July to cover maternity leave at niche city practice Brough Skerrett. Now at Trowers he believes there is the possibility of a permanent position. He sees his experience in a positive light and offers some insights to other solicitors considering the change.

The first thing to remember is to register yourself as self-employed and, as such, you are responsible for your own tax affairs. The next is to look at the contract being offered in terms of the holiday pay or sick leave. “I recommend you take out an income protection plan, especially if you have dependants,” he says.

Then there is the question of overtime. In the City, firms will expect contract solicitors to work longer than a 9am to 5.30pm day, so you have to establish how you will be paid.

Buxton recommends that solicitors considering the move to contract work have at least three years working experience.

“Age and maturity help,” he says. “Perhaps I would not have been so keen to do it before. You need confidence, resilience and toughness to do it well.”

He compares the environment in which a contract solicitor has to work with that of a permanent position: “It is less gentle – you're expected to get on with it as a locum. You're being paid for your experience.”

Recruitment consultancy ASA Law has a guide estimating what a contract solicitor should expect to earn based on the number of years qualified. Buxton says the guide estimated that he should earn at least £750 a week.

He has worked on a wide range of projects from commercial leases to development work, reorganising loans for housing associations to general commercial lending. But the most important thing Buxton feels a new contract solicitor should consider is “whether you can be flexible enough to fit into another firm and get on with the work, clients and people around you”.

“You have very little negotiating power,” he says. “If someone has a problem with you or if you upset anyone you could be out in the street as either party can terminate the employment at short notice. You are there for a purpose but you have no job security.”